Lyotard and the Plight of the Humanities Student


I have just finished reading Jean Francois Lyotard’s seminal work The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge.  His writing essentially deals with how the current  society (in the late 1970’s) espouses to gain knowledge, the breakdown of the metanarrative, and the shift towards a computerized reality.  Interestingly enough, it seems that exactly what Lyotard was anticipating  in the 1970’s for today’s society  has seemingly come to fruition in our present generation.  Thus, I thought some of our cyber-dwelling readers may be fascinated by his Postmodern prophecies come true.  In my particular position as a student of the humaniites/social sciences, I am a bit worried by his insight. 

(In the following I’d like touch on his thoughts on the metanarrative, the computerization of society, and where he foresaw Academia heading.)

A Quick Overview:

Lyotard’s work is commonly known as a catalyst of Postmodern thought (I am currently trying to survey Postmodern/Continental philosophy myself.  Hence my reading this book.)   He wanted to argue for the break down and rejection of metanarratives, or (aka) overarching  stories that the whole of a society/culture accepts, believes to be universal, and thus governs itself upon.  An example would be Capitalism, Christianity, and/or Freedom here in the US.  He argues that the legitimation of these Grand or Meta- narratives is an impossible feat and thus they must be done away with (he illustrates this with Marxism leading to the phenomenon of Stalin’s Totalitarianism).  A richer introduction of Lyotard’s work is given here.

Different Worries…so…yeah

2432270195_63a21184401Lyotard’s work worries me, but not for the classic reasons people worry about Lyotard’s work.  Usually one worries about Lyotard’s rejection of the metanarrative they hold to be self-evident.  As I have usually heard it in my context, some Conservative and Fundamentalist Christians worry about a rejection of their metanarrative because without the universality of their particular nuanced version of Christianity, they believe their whole worldview crumbles.  I would argue that these types are very much entitled to their beliefs and views on the universal nature of their narrative, but as I’ve seen, they sometimes hold  all the particulars a bit too tight and act as though if the slightest part of their narrative is refuted, the whole thing is somehow worthless.  Thus, a “fight against” mentality occurs.  This is not my worry.

No, Lyotard’s work worries me for different reasons.  Let me expound a bit more for a moment. 

The Computerization of Society

Lyotard originally wrote this as a presentation to the Coseil des Universities of the government of Quebec as per a request from their president.  Lyotard was commission due to the changing postmodern ethos of the late 1970’s that was shifting toward what he calls the “Cybernetic” age, which essentially refers to the birthing of a computerized society that brings local communities into a greater global community.  Lyotard saw the burgeoning computerization of information, commerce, capital, and communication in the world and regarded said burgeoning as only the beginning of a complete shift towards a computerized world (turns out he was correct!  You’re reading this, right?!).  


Performativity Principle

Part of this shift is essentially what onsets my plight.  Lyotard explains the “Performativity Principle.”  This is the principle that, in the changing computerized culture, all that will be invested in and given credence to, are those things that are performative.  These performative things have certain functions that essentially make them a means to an end.  The manifestation of these performatives finds its way into society for the production and reproduction of capital.  Thus, a society is birthed that is driven by capital and power, performing only those feats that lead to these ends. (I see a connection here with Nietszche’s “Will to Power” motif.  See post below) 

Social Scientists Need Not Apply

Furthermore, Lyotard sees a shift in how the educational system is conceived of and governed due to the Performativity Principle. Problematic for me is the fact that I am a grad student of the humanities/social sciences in this Cybernetic Performative age.  In this age the philosopher, theologian, anthropologist, sociologist, etc., are marginalized in the university because their “perfomance” is not very lucrative.  The philosopher does not bring in the bucks and drive phat cars (are we still using “phat” these days?).  The philosopher comments on the drivers of phat cars.  The philosopher asks the basic questions of reality (metaphysics) and seeks an understanding of how we should simply, do society (government, ethics, economics).  


Thus, the university becomes (has become) a place driven by capital as well.  Liberal arts educations decline, we focus scientific research on those  things that bring money to the university,  professionals increase, and the influx of business majors into the collegiate setting becomes (became) the vast milieu.  And here I sit and write, a student, who has never cared much about the professional business world, hoping that there still may be a teaching job for me when I graduate. 

Do you think our society still has a place for the not-so-lucrative folks?

Submitted by:  Ckcasselman


14 responses to “Lyotard and the Plight of the Humanities Student

  1. Chris,
    If you are interested, I have an article by Merold Westphal who argues that Christianity does not fit the mold of a metanarrative but rather a meganarrative. He argues that Lyotard’s polemic against biblical faith does not necessarily mean that the argument about metanarratives is against biblical faith. Let me know if you are interested.

  2. When I read Lyotard, I was particularly struck by how he applies the performativity principle to the individual subject. In the info age, the subject becomes a node through which information passes, through which language games are played.

    It is interesting to juxtapose Lyotard’s idea with the fact that humans and cybertechnology being melded together in myriad ways. You could call it the “cyborg principle.” Stonyhill sparked an excellent discussion about this phenomenon at

  3. Erik Gruber aka Zizzle-Zot

    “No man hath greater passion than a functionary for his function.”

    I forget who said it, but we’re a world of functionaries. We are defined by the functions we perform and measured by how much we produce within that realm.

    So the short answer to your question, ckc, is no. There is no place in our current society for the humanities. They don’t produce, they have no function.

    Even the sciences are heading in this direction. There’s very little genuine “research” being funded. Those posing as scientists are actually industrialists looking to make a better antacid or windshield wiper fluid. They’re pursuing product to make money, not knowledge.

    What we’re left with is a serious knowledge drought. The knowledge we have is drying up, and no new source is being sought after.

    One can only hope that the current global condition will lead to a revolution of sorts and teach us the value of pure knowledge. Stay optimistic.

  4. Traditional science does a horrible job analyzing and contexualizing human behavior as a data set…and it does an even worse job recomending improvements to our basic social structures.

    If you want to improve a school system, talk to a sociologist. If you want to promote empathy within a community, talk to an english major. If you want to ensure that notions of freedom remain the central pillar of our nation, hope that our leaders took a philosophy course in college.

    I’m not sure the goal of humanities departments is to break new ground. Maybe they exist to make sure, as pure science pushes our world forward, that we’re also checking our left and right. This is how we attempt to understand where exactly we are and if we’re prepared for what’s ahead.

    Or maybe humanities is an excuse for rich kids to dick around for four years, while China snatches up all the mechanical engineering pattents.

    I hate this blog. For every sentence I write, I want it to be a term paper.

  5. Harris-
    I would love for you to send me that article. Thanks!

    Reading your comment after just hearing you give a lecture sparks some thoughts for me. I recently subscribed to a podcast through Berekeley on Heidegger. In the intro lecture the professor talks about his podcast and argues to the students in the class which is being recorded that podcast learning is not nearly as beneficial as physically present class room learning.

    Today I found that your in-class lecture gave an insight on Zizek that was much more transparent and palatable than virtual learning for me. So perhaps we must have both. I need both the virtual learning and the real life Will and Tim.

    Zizzle Zot-
    I think you are correct and this is depressing. Perhaps it will all implode and society will look to the philosopher for answers to why said implosion occurred. I will be optimistic in the meantime, thanks.

    Mr. A-
    You give good comment. I particularly like, “This is how we attempt to understand where exactly we are and if we’re prepared for what’s ahead.”

    I think we need to realize that much of any contemporary society was conceived of in the humanities departments of the world.

  6. If you want some resources on the importance of the humanities for society, particularly from a moral standpoint, read:

    -Iris Murdoch, “The Sovereignty of Good”
    -Jeffrey Stout, “Democracy and Tradition”
    -Ralph Waldo Emerson
    -Walt Whitman

    The view advocating for the importance of the humanities for society is out there, but I agree, as cassleman seems to be saying, that the view is the minority.

  7. Great discussion, folks. I think where this is going could sort of be broken down by thinking about something that many of us heard towards the end of our secondary education.

    “So, Jimmy…what are you going to school for?”

    “Well, sir, I am going to school for music.”

    “Music, eh? How’s the pension plan for a struggling coffee shop guitarist?”

    “Not very good.”

    “Why don’t you go be a doctor or a lawyer?”

    Yup…this is something we have all heard in some fashion. But, to get grandiose for a minute, I surely don’t think a politcal-career-motivated grad student from Yale has any more of a shot (or right for that matter) to change the tides than his broke-uneducated-yet-wildly-personable musician counterpart.

    Keep the humanities alive. Knibb High Football RULES!!!!!

  8. Amen to the Al Dogg!

  9. We already know everything. Why on earth would society value those seeking to learn more? What a waste of time. Everything I ever wanted to know is one google away! We are basking in the glory of our knowledge seeking only to perform our function as Zots states and to keep up on the latest celebrity gossip.

  10. I just typed in: (out of habit) and I was afraid Cassle had gone sissy on us!

    False alarm people.

  11. Celebrity gossip is where it’s at. Maybe if philosophers focused more on the philosophy of The Jonas Brothers they could be more relevant.

  12. My sense is that postmodernism has yielded as a cultural dominant to digimodernism. Lyotard was writing 30 years ago; the world has moved on.

  13. Hello Alan! Could you give us here at leaveittotheprose a little insight as to what you mean by digimodernism?

  14. I think Alan was trying to sell his book.

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